New details shed light on the Aleppo Prison siege

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A handout picture released by the official Syrian Arab News Agency (SANA) on May 22, 2014 shows the entrance to the Aleppo prison after Syria's army broke a siege of the prison, cutting off a major rebel supply route in the main northern city of Aleppo. (Photo: AFP-SANA)

By: Suhaib Anjarini

Published Thursday, June 5, 2014

Although it was daily news material, the siege of the Aleppo Central Prison was shrouded in mystery. One of the unknown parts of the story involves an earlier agreement that, had it not been torpedoed, would have brought quick relief to the inmates trapped inside, and ended the siege ten months ago. Al-Akhbar sheds light on some of these secrets, the conditions of the prisoners after the end of the siege, and other details that have never been revealed until now.

Many details about the Syrian crisis remain unknown, including one mysterious episode involving the armed opposition’s siege of the Aleppo Central Prison.

Many armed opposition groups participated in the protracted siege, most notably the Ahrar al-Sham Movement, which was involved throughout the siege until the Syrian army was able to end it. Since the beginning of 2013, Liwaa al-Tawhid, al-Nusra Front, and the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) joined the siege - before conflict broke out between ISIS and other opposition groups.

The militants wanted to achieve two secondary goals: recruiting some prisoners after “liberating” them, and taking advantage of the prison’s strategic location. That is in addition to the main goal of freeing dozens of Islamist prisoners, the majority of whom (61 to be precise) belong to Jund al-Sham. These prisoners had been transferred from the infamous Sednaya Prison near Damascus at the beginning of the crisis, when the conflict had not yet reached Aleppo.

An Agreement to End the Siege

Months into the siege, the militants delegated Ahrar al-Sham to represent them in talks with the Syrian regime to secure the release of Islamist inmates. In July 2013, a preliminary agreement was reached with the help of the Aleppo People Initiative, stipulating the following:

1 – Releasing Islamist political prisoners (the number was not specified and was to be determined through negotiations), in return for releasing 18 Syrian army officers who had been captured by the militants earlier.

2 – Ending the siege of the prison, and allowing fuel, food, and medical supplies to enter, in enough quantities to meet the prison’s needs for a year.

3 – Admitting a medical team to the prison and evacuating wounded prisoners and army and police officers.

4 – Allowing a legal commission to study the prisoners’ conditions in order to determine who can be released, on the basis of their sentences, offenses, and eligibility for pardon (at the time, there were 1,200 prisoners eligible for release).

The agreement was acceptable to all parties, but for some unknown reason, new mediators got involved. The Aleppo People Initiative was excluded and replaced by the Syrian Red Crescent and the International Red Cross - represented by its field envoy for Aleppo and Idlib, an Iraqi called Hind Aqouli, who had a pivotal role and can be considered the main broker of the new agreement.

The efforts quickly led to a second agreement, whereby the Red Crescent would bring in 5,000 precooked meals, which are sufficient for one day only, instead of the previous agreement that would have brought in enough supplies for a whole year in one batch. While the food clause in the previous agreement would have helped keep expenses in check, the new clause provided for open-ended expenditures (in both agreements, it was the aid groups that were responsible for costs).

Moreover, as per the new agreement, the militants would allow the legal commission to enter the prison, with 10 eligible prisoners released each day (instead of releasing 1,200 prisoners in one go as per the initial agreement). The agreement also included a deal to swap two army officers for six Islamist prisoners, with the rest of the cases to be negotiated at a later date.

According to the new agreement, whenever an Islamist prisoner is released, the besiegers would take him immediately, while the Red Crescent oversees the release of other prisoners to their families. The new agreement did not include clauses requiring an end to the siege, or even a medical team to enter or evacuate those in need of medical attention.

The suffering of the inmates entered a new, prolonged stage afterwards. The specter of hunger haunted the inmates now, and whenever they ate they did not know whether they had any food for the next day. To be sure, the clashes taking place in the vicinity of the prison dramatically limited the entry of foodstuffs. Meanwhile, no medical assistance was provided to either the prisoners or its garrison troops.

The judge who went to the prison to examine the prisoners’ cases was shot near the prison gate by a sniper from the opposition side. The militants were quick to restate their commitment to the agreement, and claimed the incident was the result of a sniper acting alone.

However, judges refused to come to the prison afterwards. The prisoners’ cases were studied offsite, at the Justice Palace in Aleppo. Soon, corruption crept into the issue, with extortion rackets specialized in prisoners with expired sentences. Relatives of these prisoners wishing to expedite their release often had to pay 200,000 Syrian pounds (US$ 1,340) in bribes. As the siege was prolonged, this figure soon rose to 500,000 pounds (US$ 3,350).

The Red Crescent would receive a list from the legal commission through the police commissariat, containing six or seven names to be released from prison each time. Sometimes, Islamist prisoners would be released along with them, and handed over to Ahrar al-Sham. The total number of these prisoners was 20.

The implementation of the agreements would hit snags several times. The besiegers of the prison continued to shell the complex and to attempt to storm it. The militants’ propaganda machine, in the meantime, peddled the idea that their goal was to liberate all 4,000 prisoners there, and claimed the women detained in the prison were “free women of the revolution,” even though they had all been imprisoned on criminal - rather than political - grounds.

The ‘Hi-tech’ Islamist Cellblock

After ending the siege, the Syrian army entered the prison. The Islamist inmates, who were being held in a separate cellblock, were told to leave after taking off their clothes, for security reasons. Throughout the siege, no police officers had entered the cellblock, and not much was known about what was going on inside.

The prisoners complied. They numbered 40; 20 had been released earlier, and one had died (the Red Crescent was able to remove his body and hand the remains over to Ahrar al-Sham). The police subsequently entered the cellblock, for the first time since the start of the siege, and inside, they found dozens of mobile phones, laptops, and various other devices and items.

The Islamist prisoners had also removed the tiling of the cellblock floors, and loaded the rubble in pillowcases and mattresses, turning them into makeshift sandbags to protect themselves from any gunfire. However, no weapons were found in their possession.

The Fate of the Prisoners

The Islamist prisoners were taken to a government facility in a residential neighborhood, and placed under heavy guard. Women prisoners were taken to the Temporary Detention Center (for minors) in the Jamiliyeh district. There are 75 female prisoners, accompanied by five children. According to Syrian law, detained mothers may keep their children with them in prison, especially if they are nursing them.

Male prisoners, who number 2,300, were moved to Al-Wihda school in Al-Wihda district adjacent to Al-Shuhadaa district (previously a headquarters of the National Defense Forces). A security cordon has been placed around the school, which has been placed under heavy guard. The prisoners have been distributed into thirty classrooms (75 in each room, each roughly 25 square meters). Some of them, who have advanced cases of tuberculosis, have been placed under quarantine in tents in the schoolyard.

Recently, the legal commission resumed studying their cases. Up to 300 prisoners have since been released, having had served their sentences; 20 prisoners were also released under a special amnesty for having helped the prison garrison defend the complex.

All the prisoners look weak and pale because of their ordeal during the siege, which included malnutrition. While being transported from the Central Prison, eight inmates died, while others were placed in the Police Hospital in Aleppo in critical condition.

At the school, there is only one WC containing six toilets. Additional toilets are being installed. Al-Ishan, a charity, is providing food for the prisoners.

During the siege of the prison, 830 prisoners died from starvation and tuberculosis; 940 prisoners had been released in stages, in addition to 15 female prisoners.

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.

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